The district around the village of Ballyliffin is one of the richest in archaeological sites in the county with Mass rocks, standing stones, promontory forts, holy wells, pilgrimage sites, souterrains, rock art, cairns, marked slabs and megalithic remains. The sites are located on private lands and are not signposted so only a small number can be listed below:
ROCK ART – the district has an outstanding collection of rock art, which dates from the Bronze Age and has survived through the millennia. It consists mostly of concentric circles, scribblings and spirals similar to those at Newgrange. Similar examples have also been found in northern Spain. One of the principal sites is at Magheranaul in the ISLE OF DOAGH. Rock art can be seen on CRUCKAUGHRIM hillside about 350 feet above Ballyliffin, an indication of settlement in the village dating from pre-historic times. (Access to both sites is very difficult). A collection of small circles can also be seen on a flat rock on the edge of MEENDORAN LAKE along a slip road off the main Carndonagh-Buncrana road close to the roadside about 200 yards from the small jetty.
MASS ROCKS date from the era of the Penal Laws in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. The best known Mass rock is in the ISLE OF DOAGH. It is unlike the typical Mass rock found elsewhere as it is semi-circular in shape with over 30 crosses, some decorated, others unfinished. It is not in its original location and was moved to higher ground after a sandstorm covered the “island”. It is believed that they were made as a mark of thanksgiving for favours granted, such as the success of a harvest after a period of hunger or in thanksgiving for protection from cholera. A wandering friar said Mass here on occasions. On the main Isle of Doagh road going towards the Famine village, turn left before renovated schoolhouse and continue on slip road for half a kilometre to Ballyduff. The Mass rock can be seen close to the roadside on right. There are about a dozen Mass rocks in the Ballyliffin area. References to Mass rocks are found at other locations such as Leac na hAltóra, Garrda an t-Sagairt, Leac an Aifrinn and the Altar Rock.
PROMONTORY FORTS are a feature of the coastline of Inishowen and a score have been located in the peninsula. One of the best examples is at DUNARGUS and can be seen towering majestically above Five Fingers Strand opposite Carrickabraghey Castle. The forts (dún in Irish means a fort) provided a natural defense for the peninsula during invasions and were used particularly during attacks by the Vikings in the tenth century when they attempted to establish a foothold in the peninsula because of its strategic location. A Viking king took up residence at Dunargus but local chieftains succeeded in driving him out. However, a number of Viking families settled in the Isle of Doagh and Killourt after the invasions. (Access via car park at Knockamany Bens)
CHILDREN’S BURIAL GROUNDS are found throughout the peninsula and at least five have been recorded in the area, three of which are at DUNAFF, BINION and STRAID. Apart from a few boulders acting as markers, there are no headstones, so it is difficult to locate them. The Church forbade parents to bury unbaptised or still-born infants in the local graveyard. In some districts, burials took place within living memory.
FORTS dating from the Iron Age are to be found in the area. They were used to provide a safe haven for women and children when battles were fought among local chiefs or during times of invasion. Livestock could be protected here also in order to prevent the victor taking possession of cattle and sheep. There was a large fort at CLEAGH which had a diameter of sixty feet capable of holding hundreds of people. DUNAFF was also the site of a fort (Dún = fort)
FINN McCOOL features in the folklore of the area and a rock at MAGHERAMORE is known as Finn McCool’s Chair. It is said that it was a boulder which he threw from Slieve Snacht, the highest mountain nearby.
STANDING STONES are plentiful throughout the district. They were used to mark out territory of local chieftains and frequently were erected as burial places of those who fell in battle. There are standing stones at ARDAGH and MEENDORAN. (Access difficult). The Standing Stone at ROOSKEY near the Carndonagh-Clonmany road is close to a souterrain, which has been dismantled and has Viking connections. A hoard of Viking bracelets was found here in 1966 and a Dane is said to be buried nearby.
CARRICKABRAGHY CASTLE is one of the most important monuments in the area. There are references to a castle here in the ninth century. The present structure has associations with the O’Doherty clan and the Rebellion of Sir Cahir O’Doherty in 1608. He stayed here as he planned the rebellion in which he lost his life at an early age. It is believed that there was a small castle at one time at LEGAHURRY in the Isle of Doagh close to the Grey Rocks, which acted as an outpost of Carrickabraghy. (Access to Carrickabraghy via main Isle of Doagh road)
VIKING INVADERS may have fought a battle at BALLYMACMORIARTY where human bones have been found. A hoard of coins belonging to a later period was also found here many years ago.
BOOLEYING was part of the farming tradition here in earlier centuries. Cattle were driven to richer pastures on higher ground. Farmers stayed with the cattle to milk and tend them and lived in small stone huts but little evidence of the huts remains.
HOLY WELLS were common at one time in many townlands. Some of them are associated with St. Colmcille and were important pilgrimage sites in the nineteenth century. The best known holy well can be seen at MAMORE GAP and a turas (Irish for pilgrimage) is made here in August. People still pray here all the year round. (Access to roadside well via Mamore Gap). Just below Ballyliffin, there was an ancient turas at the holy well called Tobar Muiris or St. Maurice’s Well, where people prayed on the first Monday of August.
SOUTERRAINS (sous = under, terre = French for ground) were underground passages where valuables could be hidden when battles were in progress. People took shelter here also. Most of the souterrains in the area have been destroyed. There was a souterrain at STRAID and ROOSKEY
THE MIOSACH is a highly ornamented book shrine originally belonging to the O’Morrison family of Clonmany. It is now in the National Museum in Dublin.
LOUGH SWILLY was the starting point for Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell as they headed to Spain in the Flight of the Earls in 1607. In 1914-18, the entire fleet of the British navy took refuge here to avoid attacks by German submarines.
Traditional farming methods still survive in parts of the district. Turf cutting using a special spade called a slean is no longer popular but the remains of old turf-banks can be seen particularly on the Carndonagh-Buncrana road. Just below the village, fields are cut out in long strips recalling the old system of rundale farming, in which every farmer had a strip of good land and a plot of poor land on the hillside.
Few potato crops are now grown here but in former times, farmers dug plots and planted potatoes in “lazy beds”, some of which can still be seen at Mullagh. The grounds of Ballyliffin Golf Club were once part of a huge commonage on which local families were free to graze sheep and cattle.
Farmers also had strips of land bordering the shore so that they could collect sea-weed which could be sold for kelp. £5 pounds a ton was paid for kelp a century ago when it was used for making iodine. The district had ten forges which served local farmers, the best known being Wilson’s Forge beside Clonmany church. Several mills also operated in the district to grind corn, one of which was at Binion.
The local landlords were the Loughreys of Binion. The Lough Swilly railway had a station house in the village and was in operation between 1901 and 1935. Railway gate pillars can still be seen.
The island of Glashedy can be seen from Ballyliffin. In the past, farmers grazed sheep on the island and poteen makers used it to store their spirits. Tory Island can be seen from Knockamany Bens on a clear day and Inishtrahull island can be seen from Malin Head.
A fair was held at Pollan Green on 29th June and 10th October up to 1812 but it moved later to the village centre. By the 1880s, the fair took place in Clonmany. A notorious landlord, Colonel McNeill was a regular visitor until his death in 1709. The fair drew visitors from all over the peninsula. It was famous not only for the sale of cattle and sheep but also for match-making.
– the grey town
– the town of white herbs
– the town on the hillside
– Meadow of the monks
– the marsh or hollow place of the curragh or coricle
– the fort of the oxen
– the high field
– the head of the wood
– the deceitful strand
The countryside had a variety of “characters” who became famous because of their lifestyle. The McLaughlin brothers lived very different lives. Peadar was parish priest in Clonmany and Donal was the Protestant rector at the same time.
The Waterloo priest was Fr. William O’Donnell, parish priest of Clonmany, who fought at Waterloo as a young man. He had a famous horse and owned a sword which he used on the battlefield. He refused to pay tithes and spent a few months in Lifford jail. Two of his brothers were priests and all three are buried in Cockhill graveyard in Buncrana.
Michael Doherty, known as Michael Mór, was a landlord who lived in Glen House in the 1800s. He had a dispute with the Waterloo priest, Fr. O’Donnell, over a church gate collection and decided to change his religion. He is buried in Straid churchyard.
At least fifteen Clonmany men gave their lives in World War One. Most were members of the Inniskilling Fusiliers which had a barracks in Clonmany. From there, they set off to fight in the trenches of France. Other Clonmany men joined the Connaught Rangers.
Among the heroes of Clonmany is Gunner John Wilson of Cleagh, who died in 1917 at the age of 37 and is buried in Clonmany churchyard. A Commonwealth War Grave marks his place of burial.
The grave of Private Sydney Humphris can be seen in Straid churchyard. He died in Clonmany in 1918.
Field Marshal Montgomery is associated with Moville and the family home at Newpark beside the Protestant Church can still be seen. His father, Bishop Montgomery, is buried behind the church.
The district is rich in fairy lore. The area around Trawbrega Bay is linked to stories about the King of the Fairies, Niall na n-Ard, who lived at Lagg. A battle took place in the Bay between the English and Irish fairies over fish. Fairy lights can be seen crossing the bay at night as the fairies return to their favourite haunts in the Isle of Doagh.
Many superstitions are associated with fishing. Fishermen were not allowed to whistle on a boat.
Fairies were said to have the power to “blink” cows, that is to prevent the cow from giving milk.
People were afraid of fairies and witches particularly in November. In May, women often erected Maypoles to keep evil away.
On New Year’s Day, it was unlucky if the first person to enter the house was female.
Boys were often dressed in skirts to pretend they were girls as the fairies were known to steal male children.
To bring good luck, cattle were driven through the embers on Bonfire Night and coals were thrown into fields to improve the crops.
The district had a notorious reputation for poteen – making in the nineteenth century. Poteen makers always threw away the first glass to the fairies to bring good luck.
A Piper playing his pipes entered a cave on Binnion Hill and never returned. Today, it is known as the Piper’s Cave.
Thanks to the popularity of TV programmes such as “Who do you think you are”?, there is a revival of interest in genealogy. Thanks to our history, the dominant family names in the peninsula are MacLaughlin and Doherty but other traditional Gaelic names are widespread: Harkin, McColgan, McDaid, McFaul, Duffy, Hegarty, Friel and O’Donnell to name but a few.
Names such as Harvey (Malin), Hart (Muff) and Young (Culdaff) represent old landlord families, while McCandless, Platt and McIntyre may be Scottish families who migrated here. Researchers can begin with the Tithe Applotment Books for Inishowen (1830s), Griffith’s Valuation (1850s) and the online census returns for 1901 and 1911 as a starting point.
All have listings for Ballyliffin and district. Researchers should consult the libraries in Carndonagh, Buncrana and Letterkenny, which houses a superb local studies section. So if your ancestors came from Inishowen, now is the time to find out who your friends really are.
The district has a rich literary heritage both in English and Irish. In 1835, the antiquarian John O’Donovan described the Irish spoken in Clonmany as the purest form of the language he ever heard. Roger Casement and F. J. Biggar, MP studied Irish in Urris in the early 1900s.
JOHN TOLAND, who grew up in an Irish-speaking home, was born in Ardagh, a townland near Ballyliffin, in 1670. He received his education at Redcastle and Glasgow University. He is described as a free thinker and philosopher. He wrote over 50 books and pamphlets, the most famous being Christianity Not Mysterious. The House of Commons in Dublin disliked the book and ordered it to be burned publicly.
CHARLES McGLINCHEY, a native of Clonmany, recorded his folklore of Inishowen in the book The Last of the Name. A CD of his folklore is also available. A weaver by trade, he lived from1861 to 1954 and is buried in Clonmany graveyard. He recounted stories about faction fights, poteen-making, landlords, emigration, customs, American wakes and life on the land.
THE BRÁTHAIR DUBH (the Black Friar) was a wandering monk and a colourful personality, who composed songs and poetry about the area.
DENIS O’DONNELL, a poet, lived in the eighteenth century in the district.. He died in 1778 and his tombstone can be seen in Straid churchyard. His best known poem was in Irish and is called the Pollan Revels. He was banned from attending the fair at Pollan and locked in a bedroom. To pass the time, he composed the poem.
MATTHEW SWEENEY, poet, was born in Ballyliffin in 1952 and lives in England. In 1994-95, he was poet-in-residence at London’s South Bank Centre. He is the author of several books of poetry including Fatso in the Red Suit, published by Faber and Faber.
CHARLES MACKLIN, playwright and actor, was born in 1690 and came from Culdaff. The Charles Macklin Autumn School is held in Culdaff every October.
FRANK McGUINNESS, playwright, was born in Buncrana and BRIAN FRIEL lives in Greencastle.
BOOKS ABOUT BALLYLIFFIN
The Last of the Name – Charles McGlinchey
Inishowen, its History, Traditions and Antiquities – Magtochair (reprinted).
Inishowen, Land of Eoghan – Seán Beattie, M. Lynch, Ros Harvey.
Journals of McGlinchey Summer School, vol. 1-10.
Donegal Annual, Journal of Donegal Historical Society
Our Inishowen Heritage – Brian Bonner (reprinted)
Ancient Monuments of Inishowen – Seán Beattie
Book of Inishtrahull – Seán Beattie
Donegal in Old Photographs – Seán Beattie.
Romantic Inishowen – Harry Swan (out of print)
Twixt Foyle and Swilly – Harry Swan (out of print)
The Heritage of Inishowen- Mabel Colhoun (out of print)
The above books are available in the library at Carndonagh.